Knowledge has been described as a slippery and esoteric concept. This has made it very difficult to define and very difficult to distinguish from information. Knowledge managers must be cognizant of some of the interesting characteristics of knowledge when they attempt to manage knowledge by embarking knowledge initiatives, typically efforts to encouraeg knowledge sharing, knowledge creation, or knowledge codification. In this brief article, I draw on various examples to illustrate some of the more interesting characteristics of knowledge. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but meant for reflection and contemplation by those who are intrigued by the ethereal qualities of knowledge.
1. Knowledge can be Leaky (Brown & Duguid)
With so much difficulty in getting organizational members to share their knowledge with colleagues, this may come as a surprise. Carr, Morton and Furniss (2000) estimated the monetary losses to U.S. industry resulting from economic espionage activities to be between $1.8 billion to $100 billion per year. Everything from taxol (which is used in the treatment of ovarian cancer), to innovative razor designs, to new adhesives and computer source code leaks out to other organizations where the intent is for it to remain within the boundaries of the organization. Today, the increased use of computers in the workplace has exacerbated this problem by making it is easier to leak confidential knowledge. A computer for every employee means that he no longer has to stand over a photocopy machine to copy secret documents. He merely has to copy a company’s customer list or confidential blueprint onto a floppy disk and walk out the door, or easier still, attach them to an email message and send it to the highest bidder. Privilege makes knowledge leaky!
2. Knowledge can be Sticky (Szulansky)
We all know that knowledge sharing, whether through interaction and dialogue, or through documentation, is difficult. The adjective Szulansky chose to describe this situation is “sticky”. Knowledge is sticky for a few reasons. Firstly, because knowledge sharing requires a conscientious effort by the sharer to express what he knows in a form that can be easily and acceptably understood by the sharee. On the part of the sharee, he has to be attentive to benefit from the knowledge sharing that is taking place (it takes two to tango!). This is challenging as it means that both the sharer and the sharee has to have excellent communication and people skills, and a reasonable amount of common ground (common vocabulary, context and “chemistry”). A second reason for stickiness is that time and effort is needed to understand what knowledge the sharee needs, to what detail, and in what form, to make sharing effective and meaningful. Time is a precious commodity for most. Thirdly, articulating one’s knowledge can be risky as the sharee may pour scorn on whatever is shared. This makes knowledge sharing with strangers, whom we do not know will be receptive to the knowledge shared, particularly difficult. This is where trust, familiarity, and plain tactfulness on the part of the sharee, and emotional hardiness (simply being thick-skinned) on the part of the sharer plays and important role.
3. Knowledge is often Incremental
That knowledge is incremental can be seen from the progress of science. One example that comes to mind is the speed of light, often denoted as c in equations. Aristotle believed that the speed of light infinite, or that light was instantaneous. In 1676, Roemer concluded from careful observations of Jupiter's inner moon, Io, that the speed of light was in fact finite. From measurements, he found the value to be 140,000 miles per second. In 1849, Fizeau improved the measurements to obtain the more accurate value of 196,000 miles per second. The last physicist to make significant improvements to c was Michelson (who in 1907 became the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in the sciences). In his lifetime, Michelson improved the value 186,508 miles per second in 1878 and to (186,285 ± 2.5) miles per second in 1927. While quantum leaps are possible, most progress in science is made in an incremental fashion.
4. Knowledge can become Obsolete
Another way of saying this is that knowledge is temporal. Many examples can be provided to illustrate this. Aristotle’s tetrad of elements – earth (solid), fire (energy), water (liquid), and air (gas) was “knowledge” for approximately two millennia until it was replaced by Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table in 1869. Today, not only has the Periodic Table ballooned to having more than a hundred elements, but the “elements” from Aristotle’s tetrad have all but disappeared from the Periodic Table. The world believed in a geocentric (or Earth-centered) universe, one where the heavenly bodies orbited around the Earth, until Copernicus advanced the idea of the heliocentric (or sun-centered) universe. A parochial attitude to knowledge is not likely to be helpful in a knowledge management initiative. Knowledge is dynamic, and large swaths of knowledge routinely become obsolete. Knowledge workers (and their managers) must be open-minded enough to accept the inevitability of change and obsolescence in knowledeg.
5. Knowledge is sometimes Unbelievable!
For this we examine Galileo’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment. Galileo’s experiments led him to believe that if different masses were to be dropped simultaneously from the same height, they would reach the ground at the same time. The prevailing theory at that time was that of Aristotle, who believed that heavier objects fall more quickly than lighter ones. Galileo decided to perform a simple experiment to illustrate this to all. The Leaning Tower of Pisa provided a suitable height to drop the masses before the assembled university professors and students. Galileo allowed a heavy shot and a light shot (a ten-pound weight and a one-pound weight) to fall together. They reached the ground simultaneously. Almost the whole of the teaching staff refused to accept what they saw and turned against Galileo, maintaining that in spite of the evidence before their eyes, that the heavier mass would reach the ground in a fraction of the time taken by the lighter masses, and quoting Aristotle as their authority.
Knowledge is indeed hard to fathom!
Carr, C., Morton, J., & Furniss, J. (2000). The Economic Espionage Act: Bear Trap or Mousetrap? Texas Intellectual Property Law Journal, 8(1), 159-209.